As a kid, my parents subjected our family to a couple different themed meals on a regular basis. One was Dad's weekly catfish and hushpuppies fry-fest. Others involved dinners at which Mom stretched a pound of meat to serve the entire table. Until my early 20s, I firmly believed you were supposed to add white bread to burgers and meatloaf. The thought of an all-meat patty? Ludicrous.
Part of their impulse to stretch ingredients had to do with the low-paying salaries of academics (both my parents) at Midwestern state colleges. The faltering '70s economy and parents who grew up during the Great Depression also encouraged frugality. So when I refer to home-style meals, Wonder Bread-infused meats come to mind.
Sitting at Tea Thyme & Tisane last week brought it all back. Their salmon cake, for instance, is so breaded the resulting wet-sponge texture undermines a deft touch with pepper and other spices. My mom relied on a similar recipe, with much less filler but using rank and gummy canned fish—which means by my childhood standards, this new café's cakes were severely lacking in food coloring and toxic smell. Instead, they are mild, burnished on the pan to bring out some bittersweet notes, pricked with modest heat, toned down by murkier flavors, then destroyed with heavy breading. I found myself finishing the dish (probably a nostalgia thing) while regretting it.
The place even looks the part of a '70s small-town diner—from its careless décor to the flimsy pegboard panels and Victorian knock-off furnishings. Yet first-time restaurateur Charles Dean Bowen is willing to employ modern technology to promote his place. He or someone working with him e-mailed me when they opened. And stacked at the restaurant's cashier's stand, you'll find cards listing every local food-related Web site, with a line encouraging guests to post "reviews" on social pages such as Yelp. One post and you get a free cup of tea. Three online reviews and you get a free dessert; pen 10 and it's a free meal. Hell, for this review, I should come away with part ownership.
Bowen's own Web site includes the questionable claim that D magazine once awarded chef Benjamin Andrade five stars for his work in another kitchen—hardly possible, as only The Dallas Morning News assigns stars, although quite likely the magazine praised the veteran cook. It's all pretty slick for a restaurant that inspires you to look backward and feel comfortable in its rusticity.
"I wanted it to be a little Southern," the owner says of his little old-time Carrollton café. "That's why the menu is the way it is."
Naturally they list teas and desserts, as well as pimento cheese sandwiches, though the kitchen also prepares favorites such as meatloaf, cornbread, pork chops and such—more home-style than Southern, but to good folksy effect. Menu items like Nellie's lentils and Mildred's cream-corn casserole take their names from some of Bowen's relatives. And by the home-style measure, Andrade's impression of meatloaf is an honest one, especially for those of us brought up on meals stretched to meet the needs of an entire family: simple, juicy and coated with...well, not ketchup, but rather a peppery, burnt umber shell. This creeps around your palate, finally latching onto the back of your throat in what amounts to either a lazy or well-calculated attack. Perhaps to forestall the spicy kick, the chef ladles on a sweet-sour-earthy relish that at once covers and supports the seasoned coating. It's a surprising start.
Andrade ran the kitchen for Café on the Square, the building's previous occupant. Bowen says that landlords introduced him to Andrade, who inspired the current menu. Until then, the Tea Thyme & Tisane owner expected to serve scones and other tea-time snacks. "I didn't want to waste his talent," Bowen explains, speaking of his chef. So a shop selling loose teas, spices and accoutrements such as pots and cozies "ended up turning into a full-fledged restaurant."
Like I said, Bowen is a first-time restaurateur, and it would be unusual to log a flawless start. On one visit, for example, an assistant couldn't ring up my bill. He kept banging away on the cash register, every once in awhile muttering "no" or "that's not right." Finally Bowen walked by and said, "Oh, I changed some of the keys." Makes sense—before reviving the café location, he worked as an accountant. During his seven years of number-crunching, he dreamed of opening a tea room. "I was a miserable accountant," he admits—not judging the accuracy of his work, mind you, but his state of mind. Since opening Tea Thyme & Tisane a couple months ago, he's made a few steps toward recovery.
"I'm making half what I made as an accountant—no, less that that," he says. "But I don't care."
The menu is a matter of fits and starts, which may soon even out. For now, they serve an unimpressive butternut squash soup, given to blandness and dearly in want of something—pepper, butter, peppery butter, a whiskey chaser—to bring it to life. Mildred's cream corn, on the other hand, is just right. It's a near perfect rendition of a favorite church basement staple, but with greater depth of character. Mashed potatoes resemble something plated at an off-ramp Holiday Inn. Sautéed spinach counters with tart bitterness and a wallop of spice.
Tea Thyme's desserts deserve some attention. They change frequently, but generally include a couple pies, one or two cookie options, brownies and perhaps a carrot cake—all baked in-house by the versatile Andrade. The carrot cake almost glows on the inside, moist and amber in color, tasting more of nuts and spice than carrot, although there's no effort to mask the vegetable.
The café also opens for breakfast and, Bowen promises, when DART's green line extension gets up and running, he will unlock the doors even earlier in the hopes of capturing commuter traffic. For now, he says, "I would love to have a signature breakfast dish—like cinnamon rolls—to bring people in."
Yet it's difficult to imagine this place as any kind of destination, except for those craving a reminder of mom's budget-stretching salmon cakes. Tea Thyme & Tisane is not that kind of restaurant. It's quaint, friendly and completely honest, promising nothing more than it delivers. There is, however, no real signature.
Other than tea...and tisane.
Bowen explains the latter as any kind of bark or root used to flavor cold and hot drinks. One evening I tried a tall, icy concoction prepared from an African herb along with orange and chocolate. From this, he coaxes mellow bitterness, a cool and lingering citrus and, suspended in between, a subtle, almost indecipherable impression of wood...and comfort. The tea list is alluring: kiwi vanilla sencha, Assam harmutty, lemon myrtle, Irish morning rum and so on. Simply put, he brews up some incredible tea.
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The café sells tea and spices in bulk. Two side rooms serve both as small dining spaces and display areas. In the main room, a floor-to-ceiling magazine rack stocks reading material—National Geographic, Sports Illustrated, hell, maybe even the Saturday Evening Post. If they had a TV, you'd expect to see Pat Summerall interviewing Too Tall Jones, followed by a special episode of Eight Is Enough.
It's a restaurant stuck in time, a taste of small-town Texas pulled straight from the '70s, when struggling families augmented burgers and meatloaf with bread scraps—and got more value for the dollar. But in a nostalgic setting next to a quilt shop in Old Town Carrollton, Tea Thyme & Tisane fits in perfectly.
Only the shameless attempts at some electronic love seem out of place.
Tea Thyme & Tisane 1104 S. Elm St., Carrollton, 214-483-2888. Open 10:30 a.m.-8:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday. $-$$